Hooray for Bollywood

The "Hindi First Fridays" series at Oak Street Cinema offers chai and sympathy for Indian film lovers

The smoothly handsome movie protagonist is a scumbag lawyer. He frames people to protect his criminal family. His wife is a beautiful airhead. They sing and dance marvelously on high cliffs above the sea near their luxury estate. A broad-chested, scowling man is on their trail: He has come to avenge the innocent (cue audience cheers). The scumbag and his wife get shot up. She dies. He has amnesia. Suddenly, she's back, shaking booty at a club. No, this woman just resembles the wife, whom she has agreed to impersonate. The scumbag wakes up and he's not a scumbag anymore. He and the impersonator tumble into love--and another intricately choreographed song and dance. He and the scowling man join forces and rout the bad people (cue more whistles and applause). The impersonator gets abducted by a comedy team. The ex-scumbag wins her back. Truths are told. Hugging ensues. Yeah!

At least I think that's the movie I saw. The film was in Hindi, India's primary language, without subtitles. Judging from the laughter erupting around me, there were a lot of jokes that I missed. I'll tell you what I did understand: This ain't no Satyajit Ray. When Manoranjan Movies takes over Oak Street Cinema for the "Hindi First Fridays" series on the first Friday of every month, it screens daisy-fresh, gleamingly mainstream movies from so-called Bollywood, India's fabled popular film industry. The sociable, enthusiastic Twin Cities crowd (predominantly, it seems, Indian expatriates) gathers to check out sexy actors and actresses, action-filled tales of good overcoming evil, and the best new music--to see the Indian equivalent of The Mod Squad, in other words. Although I doubt that film would be half as fun in Hindi without subtitles. There's no replacing those dance sequences.

"At first we picked all different kinds of movies," says Pramod Chopra, who runs the three-year-old Manoranjan Movies with his wife Shashi. "We learned, as we went along, that people want entertaining films--movies that have a star cast, a lot of song and dance, and a good story. We have in the past lost a lot of money on movies that had good actors and actresses and a good story but not much song and dance. So we decided to stay away from those."

The couple started putting together Hindi film events at rented theaters (they also use the newly renovated Heights on Central Avenue Northeast) because of the paucity of such screenings in the Twin Cities. Pramod, a pharmaceutics salesperson by day, and Shashi, a University of Minnesota department secretary, often made summer visits with their kids to Chicago, which harbors a large Indian population; there, they'd make sure to treat themselves to a first-run Hindi movie on a big screen. "We are really fond--I am especially--of Indian movies," admits Shashi, who moved to the Twin Cities from Bombay in 1983 after marrying Pramod. "We just thought, 'We need to have some kind of entertainment for the Indian community here.' The whole community was starved for Indian films."

Actually, it's relatively easy to feed a hunger for Hindi film here--if you don't mind video. You can walk into almost any Indian grocery and find bootleg copies of films currently packing cinemas in Bombay, Chicago, and New York. (Manoranjan gets first-run movies a couple of weeks after theaters in larger markets.) These video versions are pretty fuzzy--something the Chopras count on. (Bootleg DVDs are an oncoming threat.) Still, they're very aware that their customers "know pretty well what they're coming to see before they come and see it," as Pramod notes. If they haven't seen the video, they've read reviews and scoped out the Indian box office figures on the Internet. Any movie with a slightly stinky reputation won't half fill the house.

And the resulting financial bath can be a deep one. It costs anywhere from $1,000 to $7,000 to rent a 35mm print for the weekend, the Chopras say, while rental rates for theaters range from $200 to $1,000, depending on the number of showings. Manoranjan hedges its bets by attempting to recreate an authentic Indian cinema experience stateside: With the promise of chai tea and friends to see, the audience may choose to attend regularly regardless of the film. This strategy appears to be working. On the two "First Fridays" I witness, the affable Chopras stand behind the refreshment counter handing out samosas and greetings like party hosts, while the pre-movie lobby buzz inches toward a roar.

"This is a chance to see the back-home movies in a back-home style," asserts Faisal Khan, a 27-year-old quality assurance analyst and regular patron of the series. "It's a way to keep in touch with the place you belong to." And, indeed, Oak Street is transformed: The Chopras' teenage son and daughter sell tickets. Graying women in bright saris chat with young women dressed sharply in black, while children run between them. Clumps of student-looking men laugh closely, heads together. In the basement, by the bathrooms, four old men play cards on a fold-out table. Past the theater doors, friends and family take over clusters of seats, talking and watching other people file in. The talk subsides but doesn't stop once the movie begins: Heroes are met with whistles, gross melodrama incites hoots, righteous acts of revenge draw applause--and there's even a single, facetious "You go, girl!"

 

"It's so different here in the U.S.," reports Prashanth Holenarsipur, age 24, a graduate student in engineering at UM. "People go to the movies in small groups of two or even alone! Back in India almost every fun outing is with a huge group of friends--and 'mob psychology' demands that you make a lot of noise and pass comments about the movie." Indeed, I am as odd here in my solitude as I am in my paleness. "Do you understand the movie?" one middle-aged man asks kindly at intermission (which the Chopras extend for as long as the lobby is rocking). "You can't judge India by these films," he advises with a wry moue. "I haven't seen a Hindi movie for 23 years--since I lived there. They've changed."

Though the Chopras and their patrons certainly do their best, some aspects of moviegoing in India cannot be replicated. "Movies are so popular in India," Shashi explains gently. "You have to wait in line for advance tickets. If it's a good movie, you will have to wait four or five weeks to see it. And the theaters here are so small. The capacity of the halls there is much, much more, with 1,000 or 1,500 seats. Because it's so crowded, it's more festive." Her customers also cite the absence here of greasy veggie burgers and black-market ticket sales--although the latter, jokes software consultant Raghu Kulkarni, age 33, are not badly missed.

That said, the Chopras are having little trouble filling seats for such movies as Dil To Pagal Hai (roughly translated as Heart Is Crazy) and Pyar To Hona Hi Tha (We Had to Fall in Love). Recently, the couple sold 1,000 tickets over one weekend for Kuch Kuch Hota Hain (Something Happens in My Heart). Actors Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan and actresses Kajol Anjali and Madhuri Dixit are major draws--and not only because of their beauty. "The fact that the actors look like me makes fantasies more real," reveals financial analyst Ravi Wahi, age 60. "It's fun to be transported to India for a few hours."

There are particular headaches that come with targeting one ethnic community as your customer base. For all that it's growing, the Hindi-speaking Indian population here is quite small compared to Chicago's or even Atlanta's. (In the 1990 census, 6,855 people in the metropolitan area reported being of Asian-Indian descent, 2,495 of them born in India.) The Chopras are careful not to book a film on the date of any big party or wedding they hear about: "It would not do well," Pramod declares, smiling. However, the Chopras don't feel they've tapped out their market. When Manoranjan Movies first kicked off (with the initial help of Pramod's sister Rita Dumra), they obtained address lists from the Hindu temples in town and mailed notices to 2,000 families. "That was too expensive for us," Pramod says. "We cut it down to 400 six months back, and right now it's up to 1,052." Shashi concurs: "Every time we show a movie we get 10 or 15 new addresses."

The Chopras are surprised and pleased to be attracting one other community: people of whatever race who love cinema. Not that they plan on providing English translations any time soon. Unlike artier foreign films, the vibrant melodramas Manoranjan showcases can seduce non-Hindi speakers on high energy alone. Indeed, popular Hindi movies slide so winningly from suspense to dance number to action to comedy to romance and back to suspense that one dares to hope the days of Hollywood one-sentence-explains-all global blockbusters are numbered.

The Chopras acknowledge that Manoranjan is profiting. But if you're set on making buckets full of cash, Pramod warns, this is not the avenue to enter. Clearly, the couple keeps up this demanding hobby for other reasons. "I do believe that a lot of people come not only to see the movie but also to meet their friends and families," stresses Pramod, who has lived in the Twin Cities since 1976. "They feel as if this is a party going on rather than a movie screening. That's what makes me and my wife enjoy the business."

It's also clear that the Chopras are no longer in it to satisfy their original thirst for Hindi cinema. "We always miss the first hour of the movie," Shashi laughs, "because we're taking tickets and getting the snacks ready for intermission. We have never seen a movie from start to finish."

 

"Hindi First Fridays" continues at Oak Street Cinema on May 7 at 6:00 and 9:45 p.m. with screenings ofAnari No. 1, a "hilarious comedy of errors" starring Raveena Tandun and Govinda. For more information, call Manoranjan Movies at (612) 481-9068 or send e-mail to manoranjanmovies@hotmail.com.

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